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Meet Jane Irwin: Landscape architect

Meet Jane Irwin, Landscape architect.

Jane Irwin’s exciting re-design of the Eastern Terrace gardens at NSW Government House is bound to influence the way we think about Sydney gardens.

Interview: Robin Powell



What was your idea for the Eastern Terrace garden?

Reading through the heritage documents it was clear that the different parts of the Government House gardens had distinct characters - the parade ground, entry lawn, Eastern Garden and this Eastern Terrace, but that had gotten lost over the years because it had all been maintained in the same way. We wanted to re-establish its distinct character, make it contemporary, and Australian.



So what did you do?

We took out most of the plants in the borders, replaced the stone, restored the fountain, and divided the garden into three pairs of beds of mostly low-growing plants so that the house is connected to the views of the harbour. Those closest to the house are yellow, white and silver in tone, then the rondel beds are pinks and the lower two beds are blues.



A big part of your idea was to plant these borders with Australian wildflowers. How hard was that?

I have to say it’s a brave thing to do. I was holding my breath for the first three months to see how things would work. But I must say Government House has got behind the idea and really understood that the gardens need to reflect current tastes and cultural shifts.

There was a fascination for Australian wildflowers in colonial times that we are now rediscovering.

That heritage got buried beneath an idea of heritage that had more to do with French or English garden design. But you can see from the trees planted here - the bunyas, the Moreton Bay fig - they come from a deep interest in the Australian flora.

And yet it’s not all native.

No, we have kept remnants from the previous gardens that fit the new scheme, and used other plants, like the artemisia, as temporary fillers while slower-growing natives fill the space. The garden will change over time. The rondel particularly might take a couple of years to develop. It’s inspired by the fabulous Blobbery at Retford Park, so there will be clipped balls adding formality to the gardens there.



Many of these plants are rarely seen in gardens, like the mulla mulla, Ptilotus exaltatus.

We were really helped by Dave Rose at Sydney Wildflower Nursery. His plant knowledge is extraordinary. With the ptilotus, he advised us to consider them annuals until they prove otherwise. I’m learning, the gardeners working here are learning. The flannel flowers, for instance, we put in two sorts, the species Actinotus helianthus and the cultivar called ‘Federation Star’, developed at the Australian Botanic Garden, Mount Annan. It’s grown really really well while the species one is still thinking about it.

Any other plant revelations?

The billy buttons, Pycnosorus globosus. The yellow balls of flower float above the foliage, and I just love them. I’ve used them in a few gardens since seeing what they do here.



How will the gardens change through the seasons?

The seasonality needs to correspond with the way Government House works. They have investitures in March, June, September and at Christmas. There is lots flowering in the gardens in September; for Christmas we put in Christmas Bells that did so well we are going to add many more for next year; then we sow lots of white everlasting daisy, Coronidium elatum, that looks great in March. I’m a bit scared of June, but I think everything will still be looking good.

How fabulous to experiment like this, on this scale, in a public space!

It’s great. I’m really happy with it so far. It’s a model for a contemporary Sydney flower garden that says something about who we are and where we live, and I’m really interested in that as a part of garden making.

The Government House gardens are open to the public every day from 10am to 4pm, subject to Vice-Regal events. Check


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Author: Robin Powell